In a deeply-ironic twist, the Ministry of Mass Media launched an insurance scheme for journalists this week, entitled ‘AsiDisi’. Provided by a private company, the scheme had the most tongue-in-cheek marketing tagline: ‘State Protection Assured’. This is certainly a tagline for the present regime to live by and work towards because press freedom and the right to free expression and thought are cornerstones of a civilised, democratic and modern society.
In truth, freedom of expression is under siege in Sri Lanka and has been since the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019. In the first flush of his electoral triumph, the administration relentlessly pursued critical journalists, forcing several into exile in foreign lands and subjecting dozens of media personnel to interrogation at the CID. The crackdown is not exclusive to journalists. The regime has actively pursued citizens posting critical commentary on social media networks, protestors instigating honking demonstrations, dissenting politicians and high-profile lawyers and writers who fall foul.
Just this week, the Colombo High Court acquitted former Western Province Governor Azath Salley, after the Attorney General frivolously prosecuted him for statements made at a press conference last year. Salley, now cleared of all charges against him – “troublesome statements” being the crux of the prosecution case, was incarcerated for eight months. Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has spent more than 18 months in detention with court after court refusing to grant him bail, even after the authorities failed to bring a single terrorism charge against him. Hizbullah has been designated an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Ahnaf Jazeem, the writer from Mannar has also served 18 months in detention over a book of Tamil poetry the CID arrested him over because they could not comprehend their meaning.
But the Government’s ‘AsiDisi’ insurance scheme is also ironic because the state and affiliated paramilitaries have posed the single greatest threat to journalists over several decades. The attacks against the free press were particularly acute when President Mahinda Rajapaksa held office from 2005-2015 and current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as his Defence Secretary. Press freedom organisations estimate that 13 journalists were killed during the Rajapaksa presidency, and in every single case, the killers have never been brought to justice.
Journalists and media workers have been killed, disappeared, abducted, and tortured. Printing presses and broadcasting studios have been attacked, in one case in 2009, with claymore mines. Over the past two decades, at least 44 media workers have been killed or disappeared. In 2014, the last year of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, Sri Lanka was ranked at 165 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders›s Press Freedom Index. This position had improved significantly to 126 by the time current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office in 2019. In 2021, current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was declared a ‘Press Freedom Predator’ by Reporters Without Borders, largely over his 2005-2014 track record. Under his presidency, local and international press freedom organisations are expressing growing alarm about the shrinking space for freedom of the press and opinion in Sri Lanka.
Investigations into heinous attacks against the free press, including the murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, the abduction and torture of journalist Keith Noyahr and the trial into the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda have all been obstructed, with the regime using sham commissions of inquiry to proclaim the innocence of the perpetrators of these crimes. Just last week, a journalist was brutally assaulted in Mullaitivu by Army personnel who have since accused him of tripping over his own bike and injuring himself on barbed wire fencing nearby. That is the true face of the regime’s respect for the dignity and the rights of the free press – there is none.
There is deep irony therefore in the idea that an insurance scheme for journalists has been introduced by the same administration accused of the gravest crimes against the independent media. By nature, the role of the media in a democracy is adversarial. It is the job of the press to hold the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary accountable to the people. The decision to provide a commercial insurance scheme for selected journalists erodes the independence of the media and incentivizes uncritical reporting.
There is no question that journalists take incredible risks to report in Sri Lanka and shed light on corruption and Government misdeeds. Journalism in Sri Lanka – and all over the world – is considered a “dangerous” and “high risk” profession. That speaks volumes about where the true threats to the safety of media personnel lie; and what and who they must be protected from.